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The second meeting between the United States (US) President, Donald Trump and North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un in Vietnam during February 27-28, 2019 has garnered more attention from the international community as compared to the first one. The last summit was held in June 2018 in Singapore. However, even though there was a lot of hope about actual denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, hardly any progress was made in the last eight months. A number of scheduled talks were cancelled and both sides continued to question the other’s commitment towards denuclearisation as the US and North Korea could not agree on a mutually acceptable deal.


The second summit started on a positive note as it was the first time that Kim actually responded to a question posed by a foreign journalist, making this meeting memorable. He was very confident in answering that if North Korea was not serious about denuclearisation he would not be at the meeting with Trump. While Trump asserted that the progress should not be measured by the speed of things; and that what matters was there is no more testing of nuclear weapons, placing emphasis on the need for a “right deal” from the US’ perspective.


There was much hope from the second meeting, with speculations of opening of liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington which can act as de facto diplomatic missions. As they have no formal diplomatic relations, both sides interact via the Swedish embassy in North Korea and the Korean mission at the United Nations office in New York. In addition to this, the talks can also help end the Korean War (1950-53) formally as a peace treaty has never been signed. Though the war ended in 1953 and North Korea, China and the US agreed to an armistice, because South Korea did not agree, it was not signed. Even though North and South Korea have been talking about formally ending the war, a treaty to accomplish this goal will need a lot of ground work and thinking; also given that China and the US will also be involved in a formal peace treaty declaring the end of the Korean War. It will also need a proper understanding of what ‘unification’ will mean for both North as well as South Korea.


However, the two-day meeting was cut short and no formal joint declaration was signed between the two leaders. For the meeting, Trump was accompanied by senior officials Mike Pompeo (Secretary of State), John Bolton (National Security Adviser) and Mick Mulvaney (acting White House chief of staff) while there were only two North Korean officials Kim Yong-chol (top nuclear negotiator) and Ri Yong-ho (Foreign Minister). The major reason behind the abrupt conclusion to the talks was the question of sanctions. Trump said that he had to walk away from the discussions because Kim wanted complete lifting of sanctions in exchange of dismantling of Yongbyon nuclear facility, which the US was not ready to accept. North Korea was ready to talk about complete denuclearisation only after lifting of sanctions. While discussing the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, Trump said that though the visions were different what Kim had in mind was a progress from last year, as the two sides were ready to come together to discuss the denuclearisation process. North Korea had also not conducted any nuclear test since the last meeting in June 2018.


The second meeting between the two leaders has led to both sides acknowledging that there is a need to solve the existing problems by discussion rather than conflict. But it appears that both sides have been talking to each other, rather than with each other. Trump and Kim both have their own ideas for what to achieve from these talks and they do not seem to be on the same page. While for Trump getting a blueprint of the timeline for denuclearisation is important, what Kim wants is lifting of sanctions. It appears that the two leaders do not want to appear weak and thus, there was no actual immediate concession achievable. The leaders also announced that they had not decided when they would meet next. As analysed by Nayan Chanda, even though Kim may ‘eventually’ give up his nuclear programme and also the weapons that are capable of reaching the US mainland, he wants the US to recognize North Korea’s nuclear status as he has learnt from the fate of Gaddafi.


The abrupt ending of the talks will have effects throughout the East Asian region. The South Korean stock market crash is one important indicator as to how deeply the failed talks have affected the country. It will also hamper President Moon Jae-in’s long held dream of increasing economic engagement with North Korea and bringing the two countries closer. After the talks ended, Moon expressed his hope that the US and North Korea would resume talks soon. On the other hand, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe praised Trump’s stand to walk out of the negotiations. Abe, while commenting on the denuclearisation issue, said that it was a good thing that Trump did, “not strike an easy compromise”.  However, before the talks Abe was planning to hold a meeting with Kim. He said, “I will aim at diplomatic normalisation by settling the unfortunate past.” A positive movement towards denuclearisation would have helped bring peace on the Korean peninsula as well as the East Asian region. The regular testing of nuclear weapons by North Korea has greatly affected the overall security dynamics of South Korea and Japan. Every time North Korea tested a missile, it compounded the existing threat of a plausible attack; there have always been speculations that Pyongyang might target its neighbours. It has also been a major hurdle on the road to normalisation of relations between the three countries.


China’s reactions to the talks are of utmost significance in the assessment of the regional security scenario. After the inconclusive summit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang addressed the press and said, “Everyone has learned from the experience of the past half century that the resolution of the Korean Peninsula issue cannot be achieved overnight.” Kim had met Xi Jinping in January when the discussion for an upcoming summit was gaining strength. After Trump flew back to the US, Kim concluded his visit to Vietnam on March 2 and left for North Korea with a stop in Beijing to update Xi about the talks. These visits only underscore the fact that China continues to play a very crucial role in directing the talks. By meeting Xi, Kim is acknowledging that he will not be taking any decisions without first discussing them with Beijing. It is also getting increasingly obvious that China needs to be present at the negotiations if the talks have to progress positively. Trump however, has continued to praise the role played by Beijing in this process.


Bringing North Korea into the fold of the international community will be one of the historic achievements for both Trump and Kim. However, this goal appears to be far-fetched as of now. The situation after these talks appears to be more confusing than before and it also casts doubt on the idea that the bilateral negotiations can actually solve this issue; as countries like China, Japan and South Korea also have a lot at stake. One can only conclude that there is a need to acknowledge the ‘composite character’ of this issue, as it is more than just a bilateral dialogue between the US and North Korea. All the countries in the region have a lot at stake as far as the direction of these talks is concerned and thus they will all have to be included in the solution. A platform for multilateral negotiations may prove to be more successful. The outcome ‘may’ be different than the Six-Party Talks because North Korea appears keen to talk and achieve a solution.


The failure of the talks also strengthens the point that the first summit between Trump and Kim had actually gained very little. Other than meeting each other, Trump and Kim have achieved no breakthrough while the situation on the Peninsula continues to be unstable. In fact, reports of missile-related activity and rebuilding of a rocket site in North Korea have emerged, just a few days after the talks. North Korea has been bargaining to end the nuclear programme in exchange of lifting of sanctions. The same issue had become a major obstacle even at the second summit. However, ‘if’ the talks have to succeed there is a need for both sides to understand the underlying insecurities of each other. Trump cannot appear weak after actually bringing Kim to the negotiating table, while Kim would like to keep his nuclear status and also end the existing sanctions imposed on his country. Kim would definitely not like to give up his nuclear power status, knowing the history of US interventions and the fates of other leaders who surrendered their arsenal in the past. Will they manage to reach a midway and how this will be actually achieved – only time will tell.


[This opinion piece forms a part of the themed article series “North Korea as a Global Existential Threat” of the Science, Technology & Security forum.]


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.